N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is David Cohen and I am the founder and CEO of Techstars, which is a mentorship driven startup accelerator in the U.S. Before that I was a serial entrepreneur and three of my own software startups.
Great. And you recently had a documentary on Bloomberg about Techstars. It was really interesting to watch.
Yeah. It was fun to do. That was filmed in early 2011 at our New York program, and I actually lived in New York temporarily during that and it follows the companies through that program which was the first New York program of Techstars. So it has been a lot of fun to kind of watch it and remember all of that as it happened.
How did you get Bloomberg involved?
Well, Techstars had been approached several times by various networks, and we had always resisted the idea of doing a documentary/reality show because we really wanted it to be very real if we were ever going to do it, and we didn't want to really change what we do which is really, you know, invest in startups and help them be successful. So, you know, we had said no to several networks, and Bloomberg came along, and I think, you know, their reputation, you know, as a news organization that is very was a good fit for Techstars and, you know, allowed us to really do what do while they filmed it.
So the reason why I really wanted to talk to you today David is the focus that Techstars has on mentorship and for those that are not fortunate to be part of the Techstars program, how can they go about getting mentors for their startup? What is the best approach? What do they need to have in order to attract a mentor?
Sure. Well, I guess a few things. One is we certainly welcome applications to Techstars from all over the world. What we have done is we assembled 300 of the top Internet entrepreneurs and investors and focused them on our companies in an intensive program, but for people that either aren't a part of that, don't want to be a part of that or aren't selected to be a part of Techstars, there is a global sort of movement towards this early stage, mentorship driven focus. In fact, about a year ago, Techstars actually open sourced the model and created something called the Techstars Network, and there are 30 partners around the world who are essentially leveraging the ideas of Techstars and the sort of approach with the mentorship driven approach who have learned from us and we have shared best practices with. We don't run these other programs or operate them or have any financial stake in them, but we have tried to help them be successful. So, if you look at techstars.org/network you can see accelerator programs modeled after Techstars all over the world. They are independent. So that's one way.
Another way is that I think a fundamental issue or flaw that a lot of entrepreneurs have is that they assume that's going to be hard to go out and find mentors for their business. My experience has been just the opposite. If you approach people who you respect that have done things in the market that you are operating in and you approach them for advice, often that that relationship evolves over time and becomes a mentorship relationship. The key is just to get out there, meet people, and approach them. Have a reason to be approaching that particular person and be thoughtful about who it is. I think, you know, you will be surprised at the results in many cases.
How important is it to have mentorship in the same industry that you are operating in?
We are huge believers that it’s critical. I think operating in a vacuum it does occasionally work and plenty of people figure out their own path, but my experience with my companies as well as around Techstars and as an angel investor largely is that mentors make an enormous difference in terms of the ability to introduce you to people in their network or in terms of just giving you feedback on your business. Often they are critical to helping the business become financeable, meaning, they help develop the business model, they introduce it to potential investors, and kind of get it extra credibility. So finding someone who has been there and done that can really have a huge impact on a startup.
Are you concerned that founders can be too reliant on their mentors as the mentor is sort of telling them what to do?
I don't think that a mentor relationship means that the mentors are telling you what to do. The best mentors are Socratic in their approach and are offering ideas of what you might think about doing and challenging your thinking. It's not that you should outsource the brains of the business. It's your company, and in fact, that's one of the huge mantras around Techstars is, you know, on day one we tell them they are going to get mentor whiplash. They are going to hear, this from one mentor and that from the other mentor, but ultimately it's their company and they have to drive it forward and make the decisions. The mentors are really just there to help, and the other thing that I would add is that the best mentor relationships often become two way, and that mentor starts learning from that entrepreneur as well.
What’s the best way to get a mentor?
I have actually blogged about this a lot on my blog, the idea is to find and engage great mentors. The first rule is make it easy for them to begin to build a relationship. So, a lot of entrepreneurs make the mistake where they go after the most notable, well known, busiest person possible, based on reputation versus going after someone that actually is highly relevant to the business that may have built a company in your own town. So, think local. Think about making easy it for them. So, yes, e-mail is often the best way. That is what I would encourage people to do. Send out an e-mail with one simple question or one simple ask. That's very easy for the other person to fulfill.
An example of something that's not easy is "Hey, can I have coffee with you?" That sounds really easy, but that's, you know, basically reaching out to someone who doesn't know you that has to walk across the street, leave their office, take a meeting with you. It sounds easy, but for many people it's actually quite difficult. I get asked for tons of coffee meetings all the time. I don't even drink coffee. If you are eventually going to ask for a meeting, which I don't think is what you should do in the first interaction, go to their office. Ask for a 10 minute meeting. That's easier for someone to do. The key, and the point I'm trying to make, is to think of it as a relationship that builds over time and not a grab it all at once kind of interaction. So the first email could just simply be, "Hey, I'm building this business and I know you have relevant experience. I would really love it if you took a quick look and just give me your reaction." It takes no time for someone to click on an Internet site and give a quick reaction.
Over time if you could sort of ask one or two simple questions at a time, you will feel whether or not that person is actually interested and a meeting will become more appropriate. At that time, make it easy. So always think about making it as easy as possible for someone to engage with you and think of it as a long-term build up of that relationship.
So don't jump straight into a meeting then? Just get a response first.
Yeah. Get a response. Get some engagement. Get them thinking about what you're doing. Right. And then ask thoughtful questions. So, for example, I have blogged about an e-mail that received once that I think was from Australia that was incredibly thoughtful. The person reached out and said "Hey I'm working on such and such a business and you have very relevant experience in that you built a public safety software company and I'm approaching the same market and I'm just wondering if you might know a person or two in that market that might be interested in what I'm doing. Here it is." So he wasn't even asking anything of me, he was just saying, "You know, if you know someone that might be interested, I would love for you to share it." But had a context in that he knew my background, and he knew how I might be able to help him. My feeling is if I can help an entrepreneur and it's easy, I'm going to do it. So he made it easy for me. I did it and that relationship grew over time.
Getting a mentor on board, does that increase your chances of being funded?
I think it can in many situations. So often investors who are going to look at your opportunity are going to look at who else you have been able assemble on your team. That's your employees. That's your advisors. That's people around the company or early investors even. So just having a mentor that sort of has a real relationship with you, and it has to be genuine. I mean, it's not just a name on a website. That tends to be a credibility indicator someone who has done something interesting is willing to spend time with you and engage on the issue, and if they are called, they will say " Yeah, this person seems great. They have built a nice team. I like the product." That obviously will help an investor get over the hump and possibly, and make the commitment to invest.
You said it's all about building that relationship. How do you build that relationship when it just seems to be one sided in the sense that you benefit more than they benefit?
Well, things start out that way, right, quite often. But I can name many entrepreneurs that have been in the Techstars program that I have learned a ton from. This was one of the reasons that I do this is I love to learn and experience new things and think about new issues. I think, you know, again over time making it easy, building a relationship and then eventually sort of sharing ideas with that person. Brad Feld wrote a blog post a while back that I remember, you know, the best mentor relationships are two ways.
I felt this well about Brad Feld, who is a very well known venture capitalist here in Boulder. I pitched him the idea of Techstars cold. I did not know him. I was terrified. He appears one of the smartest VCs on the planet, and I'm this guy pitching him this idea, walking into his office for a 15 minute meeting that I made easy on him. Today, I would like to think that, I've helped Brad think about some of his issues or, you know, that hopefully he has learned a few things from me. And so, you never know where these things are going to end up, and hopefully they're not all one way, because then the mentor gets something out of it too. But that takes time to evolve.
Tell me about how you pitched Brad and what you learned from that experience. For those listening now and they have to go a meeting with somebody for 15 minutes, how can they insure that they get a yes?
It took me 4 months to get that meeting with Brad.
Why so long?
Well, I was shuffled through the system. He was doing a random meeting day. I said fine and I came in, when he had time. He was traveling a lot or whatever. Brad is very, very busy. I got the meeting, and I knew it was going to be a 15 minute meeting. My goal was to be done in 10, because I wanted to be respectful of his time. I said, "Hey, look, I'm an angel investor. I have done 2 deals with you that we're in together. We haven't met." I told him the name of those companies so that added a little credibility that I'm really doing investing. I quickly gave him my background. I quickly sketched out the idea of Techstars, and I said, "What I'm looking for is for you to be an investors in Techstars. I'm putting in, you know, my own money. I would like you to put in a little bit and be involved in it."
That was the ask. It was very, very simple. It was all off 1 sheet of paper that I slid across the table to him. I didn't do a fancy Power Point or anything like that. I just made it a really straightforward meeting. I was out of the there in 10 minutes with a $25,000 commitment from VC, which never happens. Brad just said, "Hey, let's work on this together as long as you don't flake out on me, I'm totally in." He eventually became my co-founder in the business and obviously a huge supporter of it. So, I think I made it easy. I think I added as much credibility as I could as quickly as I could. You know, I had a very specific ask that he could say yes or no to.
How do you know the good mentors from the bad mentors?
So the good mentors make suggestions. They ask you to think about things. The bad mentors tell you exactly what is right in every case and always feel like they need to be right. The things that I mentioned earlier is they should be Socratic in their approach. So just getting you to think versus telling you how to think. My style is to ask, probing questions to make you defend yourself, and often I go in very skeptical and ask those kinds of questions to a meeting with one of our entrepreneurs, and I leave the meeting being convinced that they've thought about it and that, my initial perception was wrong. I think that good mentors have that trait. They are happy to be wrong. They are happy to not have their advice be followed, but they do want to be heard. Right? I mean that's why they're doing it. If you are not going to follow their advice, to just come back to them and say, "Hey, I heard what you said. We did a lot of thinking about it. We are going to go the other direction." Their response to that tells you whether they are good mentor not.
Because, yeah, because you might not want to offend somebody.
No, but the mistake that entrepreneurs make and even with great mentors is they, if I tell you do thing A, right, forget thing B, totally focus on thing A. Now I'm either going to say "that's absolutely right" or I'm going to say "that's just my opinion. That's just data. You should talk to other people. You should eventually decide on your own." Now, if you go and do thing B, I can one of a couple of reactions. I could be upset with you or I could learn something. The good mentors want to learn something. Even if they disagree, they understand it's your company. But the mistake that a lot of people make, a lot of entrepreneurs make, is they don't ever close that loop. Their fearful say "I'm doing thing B." Right? And the best mentors would love to hear the "We listened to you. We made a decision to do something else. Here's our rationale." You're closing the loop with that mentor. I have seen when that happens that that mentor relationship usually just grows and grows. So you shouldn't be scared of not doing what the mentor wants you to do. You should be excited about the possibility of helping them understand why you're going a different direction. The good mentors will accept that and say "I'm totally behind you."
If I wanted to get a mentor that was really well known. So initially you said go for somebody that's local and somebody that's operating within your industry. But let's just take for example I really wanted to get somebody like yourself or a well known VC, like Fred Wilson for example.
How do you go about doing that? Because you guys get like 100 requests, I don't know, a day for example. How do you stand out from the pack?
Well, again, I think having an introduction to that person that is a little more warm. So there might be someone that you know in common with say Fred Wilson. The introduction coming that way is typically more powerful. They are more likely to pay attention to it. I think the other things is just recognize that, you know, Fred is probably going to say no to 99% of the things that he gets in his e-mail. That's his job. And just recognize that that maybe the case. It may not be a fit for him to, you know, for example I know he doesn't generally do softwares and service investments, and he just may say, "It's not my thing. Not what we do. We really thank you for the e-mail." But, you know, that's going to happen. But, the way, if it's really critically important to your business to get that person, I think establishing multiple levels of contact through people that, you know, that person already knows is always a smart way to go. It ultimately is a social sport.
In your book you talk about being open to randomness. What is that about? It is sort of serendipity.
Can you talk about that a little bit more?
So, in general, the book "Do More Faster" is a book that Brad and I wrote about what we've learned and working with now 120 startups that are high potential companies that have come through Techstars. Be open to randomness is simply the idea that things happen to you that are very unexpected. So one of my policies, for example, is I answer every e-mail.If someone writes me and asks me a question, I am going to answer it because you never know where that interaction is going to lead.
The example I gave earlier about Brad taking me a meeting with me. It took 4 months, it was a random meeting on a random day that he sets aside to just deal with all this massive inbound and just sit down with people for 15 minutes at a time all day long. Right? I know do those same random meetings. I call them office hours but the same idea. You know, for Brad to have taken that meeting just to be open to I don't know lets meet this guy and see what he wants to talk about. For him this turned into Techstars. Foundry Group has now invested in 4 companies that have come out of Techstars at venture scale, and so it's turned into an important opportunity for him all because he was wiling to sit down with some guy he didn't know. Right? So, I see that happen all the time around Techstars, and you have to as an entrepreneur be open to random opportunities that come from the universe that you don't expect.
What can an entrepreneur bring to the table, to this relationship? So it's not always extracting but it is also giving as well.
Well, I think that mentality, right. Having that mentality. Look, a lot of the people you are trying to approach are investors and so ultimately you can be successful, right, and that, you know, is going to turn into an opportunity for everyone. If they are not investors, I think, you know, again back to the idea of them learning something. Frankly, many, many successful serial entrepreneurs just love the mental exercise of being around innovative people and watching people build their dreams. And so for them to be able to watch a business come to life and to be a part of it, for many, that's all they're really looking for and that is satisfaction in itself. So ultimately, you know, being successful and building something that matters in the world, you know, for me it's plenty. Right? To help an entrepreneur do that feels great. If I'm also an investor in it, obviously that's fantastic. So, you know, I don't think it's as one way as you might perceive is as the entrepreneur. Just go out there and build amazing stuff, and I think you'll have a great relationship.
What's the must have for being a good mentee?
The mentee, yeah so I wrote something called "The Mentor Manifesto" and I haven't written "The Mentee Manifesto." I think, you know, being respectful of data, and these are just entrepreneurial traits, but if you are going to go talk to mentors, right, being open to the idea that you're wrong is pretty important. Right? So there is a nice balance of confidence and vision with a respect for data whether that's opinion or that's hard fact that the mentors can help provide. Being good at networking. Being good at closing the loop. And ultimately, being an entrepreneur which means doing stuff and not just talking about doing stuff. If you have those traits, I think, you can can be a good mentee.
What's closing the loop?
So closing the loop is simply the idea of following up completely. So back to the idea where I said I am considering two things, which one do you think I should do and the mentor gives you the answer, and then they never hear whether you chose number one or number 2two right? You're not closing the loop effectively. You're not giving that mentor sort of satisfaction that they were heard and that either their advice was taken or it wasn't. Both of which should be fine to a good mentor.
Any last tips?
You know, surround yourself with great people whether that's your employees or your mentors and get out there and do stuff. That's what entrepreneurs do.